Importance of STEM for advancing science in Africa
Many current scientific discoveries have a bearing in Africa, for example, African cattle and sheep herders recognize their herd through facial and pattern recognition. In addition, Africa is a hotspot for many natural resources including flora and fauna that have and continue to be sources of remedies for many diseases across the globe. However, amidst all these, many Africans are faced with a myriad of challenges ranging from lack of basic necessities such as food, clean water and medicine, to the inability to critically think and innovate. Serious concerns have been raised by prominent institutions on Africa’s inability to fill most science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions within industries. The shortage of such workforce is linked to classroom teaching and learning practices that are predominantly geared towards passing examinations, and not towards applying knowledge acquired to solve real life problems affecting societies. This state of affairs makes Africa largely a consumer rather than a producer of the technologies that it needs, a state that fosters dependence and keeps Africa vulnerable to outside control.
Notwithstanding these challenges, Africa is moving in the right direction thanks to tremendous efforts that have been made to change the status quo. Guided by the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024, Aspiration 1 of Agenda 2063, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and other frameworks, many countries in Africa have now embraced STEM. These initiatives will unlock the potential in Africa and build a work force and jobs for many—also a much needed remedy to reduce brain drain. In addition, the interconnectedness of the world makes it function not unlike a human body; systems combine to create issues such as climate change, terrorism, and emerging diseases like Covid-19; challenges to all. These system-level challenges underscore the importance of empowering Africa with the required knowledge and skills to combat these challenges.
A lot of effort has been made embrace STEM at high institutions of learning through the establishment of centers of excellence and curriculum reviews. This strategy has to some extent been successful at linking education and job creation. In my view however, given that many students only take the STEM subjects (and specifically Mathematics as a second choice because they are all too often taught by rote learning and memorization), it is prudent that concerted efforts be made to reform African countries’ curricula and related implementation practices at classroom level, right from pre-primary to tertiary levels. This will transform the way learners understand the world environment, giving them a more sensible outlook of everything and a practical approach to real-life experiences and problem-solving as early as possible.
I suggest that there should be continuous teacher professional development and support to achieve behavioral changes, and considering that most of the nurturing is done from home, parents should be enabled and encouraged to provide further guidance to the children outside the classrooms or laboratories.
Given the vulnerability of the girl child particularly in Africa, I propose that special efforts should also be made to ensure that girls succeed in STEM. My support is also based on reports from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Bank data which show that there are real social and economic benefits enjoyed by countries where more girls have higher levels of education.
In conclusion, all African learners will need higher level STEM skills if they are to solve 21st century problems and realize social and economic development in their own countries.
–contributed by Sarah Nachuha, Senior Lecturer and Head of Biology Department, Kabale University